Fugitive bank robbers and brothers Seth and Richie Gecko are fleeing the F.B.I. and Texas police. They hold up and destroy a liquor store, killing the clerk and a Texas Ranger. Two witnesses they held hostage in the store escape during the shooting. The Geckos still hold a bank clerk hostage in the trunk of their car, whom Richie later rapes and murders.
The Fuller family—Jacob, the father and a pastor who is experiencing a crisis of faith; his son Scott; and daughter Kate—are on a vacation in their RV. They stop at a motel and are promptly kidnapped by the Geckos, who force the Fullers to smuggle them over the Mexican border. Seth and Jacob make an uneasy truce: if the Geckos can make it past the border, Jacob and his family will come out of the ordeal unharmed. They arrive at the "Titty Twister", a strip club in the middle of a desolate part of Mexico, where the Geckos will be met by their contact, Carlos, at dawn. The Geckos demand that the Fullers have a drink with them before leaving, despite Kate's obvious discomfort.
Soon after entering the club, chaos ensues as the employees and strippers are all revealed to be vampires. Most of the patrons are quickly killed, and Richie is bitten by the star stripper, Santanico Pandemonium, and bleeds to death. Only Seth, Jacob, Kate, Scott, a biker named Sex Machine, and Frost—a Vietnam War veteran—survive the attack. The slain patrons, including Richie, then come back to life as vampires, forcing Seth to kill his own brother.
During this second struggle, one of the vampires bites Sex Machine in the arm. Subsequently, Sex Machine changes into a vampire and bites Frost and Jacob before Frost throws Sex Machine through the door, which allows an army of vampires to enter as bats from the outside. Seth and the Fullers desperately escape to a back storeroom and fashion anti-vampire weapons from items found therein, including a pneumatic drill, crossbow, shotgun, and holy water, which requires Jacob to recover his faith to bless. Jacob, knowing he will soon turn into a vampire, makes a reluctant Scott and Kate promise to kill him when he changes.
The four make their final assault on the undead. Jacob changes, but Scott hesitates to dispatch his father, allowing Jacob to bite Scott. Scott hits Jacob with holy water and shoots him. Scott is captured by several vampires who begin to devour him. Begging for death, Scott is shot by Kate. Only Seth and Kate survive, surrounded by vampires. Just as they contemplate suicide, streams of sunlight shine through new holes in the walls, making the vampires back away. Dawn has come, and Carlos is trying to shoot his way in. On Seth's call, Carlos' bodyguards blast open the door, letting in full sunlight and killing every vampire inside. Carlos admits that he had never entered the club, but that he had thought it looked like "a fun place".
Kate asks Seth if she can go with him to El Rey, Mexico, but he declines, saying, "I may be a bastard, but I'm not a fucking bastard." They go their separate ways after Seth gives Kate some cash. As they leave, it is revealed that the "Titty Twister" structure was actually the top of a partially buried ancient Aztec temple, presumably the home of vampires for centuries, and that hundreds of vehicles have been toppled down the side of the cliff.
Earl McGraw became a recurring character in Rodriguez and Tarantino's works, later appearing in Kill Bill, Planet Terror and Death Proof. Chango Beer and Sex Machine's codpiece gun are references to Rodriguez's 1995 film Desperado. Seth also returns to the hotel with Big Kahuna Burgers, which were used in Pulp Fiction and mentioned in Death Proof. Seth Gecko also says the line "All right, Ramblers. Let's get ramblin'!", a quote from Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Scott's T-shirt decoration reads "Precinct 13", a reference to John Carpenter's 1976 film, Assault on Precinct 13.
From Dusk till Dawn employed a non-union production crew, which is unusual for a production with a budget above $15 million.
From Dusk till Dawn had its world premiere on January 17, 1996. On its first week, the film grossed $10,240,805 in the United States making it the highest-grossing film of the week. The next week, the film fell to third highest in the box office where it grossed $4,851,921 being beaten by Mr. Holland's Opus and Bed of Roses. From Dusk till Dawn earned a total of $25,836,616 on its theatrical release.
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 64% of 46 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating was 6/10. The site's consensus reads: "A pulpy crime drama/vampire film hybrid, From Dusk Till Dawn is an uneven but often deliriously enjoyable B-movie." Metacritic rated it 52/100 based on 14 reviews.
Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and described it as "a skillful meat-and-potatoes action extravaganza with some added neat touches". In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "The latter part of From Dusk till Dawn is so relentless that it's as if a spigot has been turned on and then broken. Though some of the tricks are entertainingly staged, the film loses its clever edge when its action heats up so gruesomely and exploitatively that there's no time for talk". Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "Rodriguez and Tarantino have taken the let-'em-eat-trash cynicism of modern corporate moviemaking and repackaged it as junk-conscious 'attitude.' In From Dusk till Dawn, they put on such a show of cooking up popcorn that they make pandering to the audience seem hip". However, in his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, "The movie, which treats you with contempt for even watching it, is a monument to its own lack of imagination. It's a triumph of vile over content; mindless nihilism posing as hipness". Cinefantastique magazine's Steve Biodrowski wrote, "Whereas one might reasonably have expected that the combo of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez would yield a critical mass of nuclear proportions, instead of an atomic fireball's worth of entertainment, we get a long fuse, quite a bit of fizzle, and a rather minor blast". In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle called the film, "an ugly, unpleasant criminals-on-the-lam film that midway turns into a boring and completely repellent vampire 'comedy.' If it's not one of the worst films of 1996 it will have been one miserable year". In Marc Savlov's review for the Austin Chronicle, he wrote, "Fans of Merchant-Ivory will do well to steer clear of Rodriguez's newest opus, but both action and horror film fans have cause for celebration after what seems like a particularly long splatter-drought. This is horror with a wink and a nod to drive-in theatres and sweaty back seats. This is how it's done".
The soundtrack features mainly Texas blues by such artists as ZZ Top and brothers Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan on separate tracks. The Chicano rock band Tito & Tarantula, who portrayed the band in the Titty Twister, appears on the soundtrack as well. The film's score is by Graeme Revell. "Dark Night" by The Blasters plays over the film's opening and closing credits.
A video game of the same name was released in 2001. It is based on events that transpire directly after the end of the film.
From Dusk till Dawn was followed by two direct-to-video prequels, From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money and From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter. They were both received poorly by critics. Danny Trejo is the only actor to appear in all three, although Michael Parks appears in both From Dusk till Dawn and The Hangman's Daughter. Rodriguez, Tarantino and Lawrence Bender served as producers on all three movies.
In late 2010, it was reported that a possible fourth film in the series may be produced.
On March 17, 2014, a television series inspired by the films premiered on the El Rey, produced and directed by Rodriguez. The show will explore and expand on the characters and story from the film, providing a wider scope and richer Aztec mythology.